WALLA WALLA - On a sunny summer afternoon, the biggest problem for David and Sara Mills seems to be corralling their 3-year-old son. Eric tromps through the apartment shirtless and squeals loudly, until one of the parents gets him settled into his new bed for a nap.
At the same time, Mom and Dad also keep an eye on their 6-month-old son, Noah, who coos blissfully and bounces in the cool air of the family's small, but newly furnished living room.
On this afternoon, the Millses seem to be an ordinary family, spending a carefree afternoon together. Blue Mountain Action Council Director Steve Moss said lending a sense of stability, normalcy and safety to formerly homeless families is precisely the point of the recently completed Lincoln Terrace permanent supportive housing units.
Within the past month BMAC has filled about half of the 11 units with families. While there are various homeless shelters and temporary housing units in Walla Walla, what's unique about the Lincoln Terrace project is a focus on giving formerly homeless families an affordable place to live for as long as they need it - tenants are required to pay 30 percent of their income.
The project also focuses on developing personal relationships between the on-site case worker, Linda Williams, and the families. Together they create personalized plans intended to help families work toward finding housing on their own terms. In addition Williams will organize monthly programs that provide residents with some of the skills necessary for independent-living.
Because most families are just getting settled, Williams said she is just beginning to meet with residents and to establish these personalized plans.
Surveys of homelessness in Walla Walla over the years suggest the number of homeless families is growing, which worries those working on the issue. Children who grow up homeless are at a significantly higher risk of becoming homeless themselves - perpetuating the issue.
According to Moss, the $2,538,000 project culminates three-and-a-half years of planning, coordination and fundraising by BMAC and donors, and is a testament to the generosity of the community. After opening the application process earlier this summer, Moss and Williams said they quickly received about three applications for every available space and had to stop accepting applications.
While the housing accommodations provided by the complex might seem basic, the Millses' unit has two small bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom and living room, but for the Millses this space is everything.
"It makes us able to live as a family. It gives us more chances to work and go back to school, and not be separated ... now we have all the opportunities we need, we just need to start taking care of them," David said.
According to the Millses, stability and opportunity are things they have lacked their entire lives, until now.
After being kicked out of his home at 12 by substance-abusing parents, David didn't make it through high school. Instead, he had children at a young age and fell into cycles of drug addiction and unemployment, conditions that fed into each other.
"I didn't have much of a childhood ... I've had to be an adult for most of my life ... It was just real tough growing up, and I'm just not going to have that for mine. They deserve better than that," he said.
Sara also grew up fast, she said, caring for her younger siblings in lieu of her single mother, who used substances and alcohol. Eventually, Sara dropped out of school and turned to drugs, but has now been clean for five years.
While David eventually found decent-paying work, his family's situation remained precarious. After injuring his back and losing his job in late 2008, David relapsed into drugs and spent six months in prison. He pointed to the stress of unemployment and his wife's pregnancy with Noah.
But with the promise of affordable housing for as long as the family needs it, David said that anxieties he previously medicated with drugs have been eliminated. With David starting a new job next week, the couple said their situation is more hopeful than it has ever been.
Although some of the other families at Lincoln Terrace have histories of drug abuse like the Millses, Williams and Moss stressed there are many causes for homelessness, and drug abuse is often a symptom of deeper issues. Many families at Lincoln Terrace cope with mental illness, physical disability, generational poverty, lack of educational opportunity, debt from medical expenses, past trauma or a combination of these challenges.
After fleeing from an abusive partner, Erica Knapp found herself alone with her two sons. Then, bipolar disorder caused her to lose her job as a security officer, and the family became homeless in May 2009.
During that time Knapp has lived in temporary shelters with her two boys, but moving from place to place has taken a serious toll on the family's peace of mind.
"‘Has something happened? Has our time run out here? Do we have to move again?' That's been the hard thing, ‘Do we have to move again, mom?'" Knapp said.
Before moving into Christian Aid Center, a local shelter for homeless men and families, Knapp and her boys had been living with two relatives in a single-room apartment for a month.
Knapp said that upon first seeing the unit, the boys were amazed. Even something as simple as a dining room table means a lot for a family that hasn't had a sense of permanency and stability for over a year, she said.
"They were just awed. They came in and they were like, ‘It's all brand new. We've never had brand new stuff before.' One of the things they said when we were living in Christian Aid Center, is ‘Mom where are we going to do our homework?' because the unit we were in doesn't have a table for school, and one of the first things you see when you walk into the new units is a table ... This is going to make me cry. It's already making me cry," she said between tears.
Because of the constant movement, Knapp had to home school her children, but now that she's found a place where she and her children can stay for an extended time, her boys can now attend school, she added.
Knapp and the Millses said they were grateful to BMAC and donors for this opportunity. They are eager to take advantage of the services provided at Lincoln Terrace, and hope to eventually strike out on their own two feet. But for now, the families are grateful to know they'll be waking up with their families tomorrow, in the same safe place.
"For right now, it's going from a safe little nest where the Christian Aid Center was, to kind of an open nest, where I can kind of test out my wings in a safe environment, and eventually be able to get out on my own," Knapp said.